What happens to our perceptions of Human Constructs over time?

In my original proposal for this research, whilst talking about human constructs built for survival in remote places, I wrote:

“These constructed elements can be in conflict with the visitors’ romanticised expectations of a “sublime and picturesque landscape”. Visitors can perceive these elements as intrusions or impositions onto the landscape that jar with their expectations.

Yet, over time, with weathering, redundancy or just presence these elements can become accepted, even attractive, focal points within a landscape. Do these elements change as they age or do visitors’ attitudes change as the elements gather historical and social significance through their use and persistence?”

These questions concern me because I find myself losing interest in human constructs as focal points once their age means they have lost all traces of recent human activity, activity that I can recognise and to which I can emotionally relate. I have no problem relating to currently active constructs or derelict constructs from the 20th Century, even from Victorian times but anything earlier, especially pre-Enlightenment, seems beyond my imagination.

These standing stones at Calanais are a good example. They are beautiful, and I took their image because of their sculptural qualities, not because I could feel any emotional or other connection with whoever had built or used them some 5000 years ago.

Here is another example, Castle Stalker. I have no emotional or empathetic connection to the people who created it or lived there. I cannot imagine what their lives were like. This image is not about the human aspects of the castle. Instead, this photograph is all about the light and shapes. The castle is merely an interesting sculptural and geometric focal point that contrasts to the natural shapes of the hills and clouds behind. It is, in its way, spectacular and attention grabbing, but again, I have no emotional connection with it and, as such, it is an image that will bore me very quickly.

Scenes, such as the three shown below, do have emotional attractions for me. The cottages are very definitely derelict, but the materials from which they are made, the tyre tracks, furniture and, most importantly, their purpose and function, are all easily recognisable and relatable. For me these places have a tangible emotional content. They are faded by age and weather, but I can feel that things happened here, people lived, argued, had crises here and this was within my lifetime. The images have narratives with which I can engage.

The above images demonstrate a subject matter and style that I have been using for many years. Yet, as my research progresses I am finding such scenes less satisfying. Perhaps this is because the subject matter, Dereliction, has now become very fashionable and so it is increasingly difficult for me to say something new about it. Or, perhaps the narrative and emotional content are just too obvious, too easily romanticised. Certainly, my colour palettes and lighting for these images is much closer to that used in the romantic, landscape painting of Victorian times rather than contemporary photography.

These days I am looking for more powerful, and probably, more recent constructs to be the centre of my images as shown in the examples below. Also, I am using more realistic, more muted colours to express my feelings towards the subject. I am moving away from trying to evoke the skills of the artist with their “painterly” effects and obvious narratives, towards more realistic and, hopefully, more intriguing images.

Conclusions

As human constructs age and weather they do start to blend in with their landscape and become features of, rather than intrusions into the natural world. For myself, it is at this point that they lose their human narratives and become merely focal point objects, thanks to their, usually, more geometric, rather than natural, shapes.

In this article I have only been investigating my own reactions to the aging of human constructs. I still need to understand how others view them. Do they, like myself, start to see very older constructs as sculptural rather than relating to a former human usage, once the traces of activity have eroded? Or do they always evoke a human narrative and emotions for others?

One success of my researches, to date, has been a move away from trying to create “painterly images” with obvious narratives and towards more realistic and, hopefully, more intriguing images that will make the viewer think about my motivations.

What turns a Place into a Location? Human Constructs as focal attractions

Architect and Photographer, Melissa Cicetti has pointed me towards Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking”. Heidegger appears to say that a “location” does not exist until it has something of use to a human, for example, a bridge.

“The bridge swings over the stream with case and power. It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge. Nor do the banks stretch along the stream as indifferent border strips of the dry land. With the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape lying behind them. It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighbourhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.”

“The location is not already there before the bridge is. Before the bridge stands, there are of course many spots along the stream that can be occupied by something. One of them proves to be a location, and does so because of the bridge. Thus, the bridge does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.” (Heidegger M, 1971)

Elsewhere, Heidegger talks of the bridge being more than just a “thing”, it is also a symbol for everything that a bridge makes possible for a human. For example, access, connection, communication, etc. Is this why a bridge or any other, usually human, construct (as opposed to natural) becomes a focal point for my attention as a photographer? Am I viewing it as a symbol, more than just a thing?

Brandy Dahrouge, in her MA Dissertation for the University of New South Wales, on “The Middle of Nowhere” opens with the statement:

“Nowhere: a space without determinacy, a place that lacks a location, a destination that is not anywhere.”

She goes on to say:

 “Humans need to create place from space in order to comprehend it. One of the ways we do that is to find the potential for people and events to exist within it.” (Dahrouge B, Date?)

Every photograph, presumes the presence of a human, either behind the camera or having caused the camera to be in a particular place. Whilst agreeing with the first of these quotations it is not sufficient for my own photographic practice that I was there. I need some other human narrative as well. Taking the second quotation to a further stage, in order to achieve a human narrative, I also need evidence that humans have already existed there, not just the potential for humans to exist there. Hence my need for human constructs, or at least traces, in my landscape photographs.

Dahrouge goes on to quote Edward Casey, “Getting Back into Place” on his experiences as a child at summer camp in central Kansas.

“It was not accidental that I found myself feeling forsaken in an arid and brittle landscape. That landscape embodied my own existential desolation, reflecting it back to me with an augmented force. Landscape itself is not desolate; we merely project our feelings of despair upon it. “The middle of nowhere” is a reflection of our own feelings of being out of place.” (Dahrouge B, Date? quoting Casey E, 1993)

Whilst I can understand this statement, it is the opposite of what I experience when in I am in “the middle of nowhere”. Rather than feeling out of place and despairing in a remote or desolate landscape I feel freed of my day to day cares. My own “baggage” becomes invisible to me and I revel in the moment. At such times I take photographs in order to be able to trigger similar feelings in the future. As Dahrouge says:

“By photographing nowhere, it becomes somewhere: we can name it and place it on our own map, and in our own timeline.”

“The reasons leading up to you taking a photograph and the feeling you are experiencing in that moment, are what you want to capture, to remember.” (Dahrouge B, p7 & p24, Date?)

Later Dahrouge echoes my own experience of photographing in remote environments when she writes:

“It is the human element that connects you to the landscape: allowing you to contemplate your place within it and others presence and absence. You realise the possibility of this land to sustain human life.” (Dahrouge B, p19 Date?)

However, the tone of her statement appears to be a disinterested observation that this land can sustain human life. Whereas, for me, I gain a personal comfort from believing that, despite being alone, I am in a place that humans can or have sustained life. Conversely, I would find the total absence of human traces to be itself a threatening experience. For me, the traces are a metaphorical “lifeline”.

Comparing 2 versions of my own images:

I removed the caravan from the first image to expose the value that it has added to the scene. Both images could be considered as beautiful landscapes, but I would argue that the tiny caravan in the second image adds so much more to the meaning and narrative potential. With the caravan it is full of stories about human activities and scale in this vast landscape and a possible point of refuge for myself.

As with Heidegger’s “bridge” the caravan has turned an undifferentiated place into a location of interest and symbolism.